It was gloomy and darkening beyond the rain and freezing wind.
I strained to look for him, looked all around but could see nothing but road ahead, road behind a little way, and I was really beginning to feel very scared indeed.
I turned back to retrace my steps and stopped again because I wasn’t sure if he had not just gone on ahead faster when I was distracted by slipping or cursing under my breath, and didn’t know which way to turn. With my mind, I reached out to him, ranging out through the darkening and to take myself beyond my vision. Where are you?
It seemed as though there was a light a little further back down the road the way I had come, and I forgot about Dareon and made straight towards it. Stumped my foot across a sharp stone and slipped and fell. Got up again, looked for the light – there, there was a small path off to the left, half concealed by bush and shrub and easily missed by one who was not paying attention or who did not know it might be there.
I started on the path, sheltered now by overhanging shrubs and treelets that had grown together to form a canopy through which the rain just dropped and protected from the biting wind, and soon I saw the light belonged to a single lantern in the window of a strange tower like shape that lay ahead beyond the tree path.
I made my way across very uncomfortable gravel which formed a kind of yard to the entrance door of the strange dwelling. A big double wooden door, black and slippery wet and smelling strongly of its iron fittings and I pounded on it hard with my fist.
There was absolute silence after the reverberating beats had ceased. I stood shivering and listened hard as I could for voices, footsteps, but there was not a sound or a sign that anyone had heard or cared to come and open that door, let me in from the darkness and the wet and freezing through and through wind biting cold.
I beat the door again, harder, so hard it hurt my hand, and still there was no answer. I slowly sunk down on the doorstep. Please let me in, I thought and half whispered. Let me in, and if that had been the magic word, the door swung open, both wings opening inwards, towards a glowing in the dark.
I clambered up and stepped across the threshold and behind me, the doors swung shut without a single soul being there to have affected this.
Serein. This was another Serein safe house.
I pushed the hood back from my head and stood, dripping mud and water onto the flagstone floor. My hair was soaking and I was shivering uncontrollably now yet could not help but notice that this was very different from the other Serein places I had seen.
This house was made from huge blocks of ancient grey stone, roughly hewn, and it felt far more than a normal dwelling, in spite of it’s darkness and strangeness. A huge entrance hall with massive wooden steps leading to an upstairs lost in darkness, empty, unlit iron candle holders on the walls. Huge doors – three, four, I could see and beyond the stairs to the right, a glow from the back which I had seen from outside. I made my way towards it, my feet patting wet on the ice cold stone floor, the wet robe clinging and slicking against my calves and knees.
It occurred to me to call out to any occupants but somehow it seemed inappropriate. I edged closer towards the wall (rough, made of huge chunks of stone, interlaced and without plaster or cladding of any kind) and peeked through an open door to see:
A big stone surround fireplace, roaring bright orange and yellow flames.
A low table with plates, food and a bottle and glasses.
Two large resting chairs and Dareon sitting stiffly in one of them.
An unknown man whose face I could not make out, reclining in the other, legs outstretched and wearing low black riding boots.
I was amazed how instantly my intense anger rushed over my tiredness and coldness, like a brushfire will rush across a field of wheat and turn it to cinders in an instant. They did not care one bit if I was lying on the road somewhere, freezing to death, utterly alone, afraid and abandoned. They were sitting here in comfort and dry warmth and didn’t even bother to get up to open the door for me.
For a while I stood, dripped and shivered but neither of them showed any indication at all that they had even noticed my presence and I was livid. I walked as straight as I could manage between them both, around the table and knelt in front of the fireplace, its heat instantly touching all my front and causing me to shiver even more for a moment.
There was not a sound or word of welcome from either of the two men, nor any movement at all. I waited for a few breaths but nothing whatsoever happened.
So I took the singing stone from my pocket and placed it on the hearth step. Then, I pushed the blue robe which was absolutely soaked from my shoulders and pulled my wet arms painfully out of the clinging garment, pushed it down my hips then sat back and wriggled out of it completely. Wearing now only the short undershirt that barely reached halfway down the back of my legs, defiantly I moved away from the wet spot on the floor where the tunic lay and began with my back to the two men, to wring out my hair and to lift and spread it for the fire to start drying it out, turning myself this way and that to let the warmth of the fire reach all of me.
Slowly, I stopped shivering and even had to retreat a little way as the heat from the wonderful fire began to be a little too intense.
Behind me, there was movement and I turned my head just enough to be able to observe in my peripheral vision that the reclining strange man had sat forward in the chair. Then, I heard his voice.
“Are you done yet?”
There was a deep and resonant pitch to his voice, and more than that, it was human rather than Serein. There could have even been the possibility of sarcasm there.
I turned around to look at him.
He was quite old, at least forty but it was hard to tell and even just sitting there, you could tell that he was a very big and broad man, strong. He had the look of a soldier, authoritative but in a physical sense, like one who would take a sword to you himself rather than to call the law if you crossed him. I could not make out the colour of his hair but it seemed very fair or even white and was cut very closely; he was immaculately shaven and his face was pale and expressionless, carved like the statue of a king of the olden days with straight eyebrows, straight nose and square jaw. His clothing was dark, cut severely and the only decoration I could perceive on him was a large ruby ring on one hand that was lying carelessly across the arm of the chair, catching the fire’s light and reflecting it back in bright vermilion lances, and a small star shape flashing on a chain around his neck.
Then our eyes met.
In spite of the gloom and the distance – a good three strides of more – something shot from his eyes straight into mine (pale, alien eyes, this man is dangerous, frightening!) as though he was storming straight into my head. Reflexively, I fought him and tried to push him back, but he was much, much too strong for that and I had that feeling of wry amusement from him again as he played a little with me to give me the illusion I could hold out against him even for a few moments.
I wished I had the singing stone to provide me with extra strength and somehow, the vortex flashed into my mind. To defeat the vortex, you had to merge with it. It had worked then – was it worth trying it here with him the vortex I was trying to conquer in vain?
I gave in to his pushing just a little bit and felt a tingle of joy and a surge from him or me, it was difficult to say, but it was then I made the choice to let him in all the way. I simply dropped all resistance and not only let him flow into me, but reversed right round and pulled him into me as well instead.
All that I was lay open to him; entirely unprepared, he fell into me, out of control and for an instant, we were one and the same and then with a tremendous crunch that shot through my mind and my brain, he was gone from there but outside he had jumped from of his chair, with a strange expression on his face.
He crossed the distance between us, stood and looked down at me. I had no trouble this time to meet his eyes, and when we locked again and he began to push, I pulled and he instantly stopped pushing and took a deep breath instead. His lids flickered and then he was just a man, just looking at me like people look at each other, without trying to suck out each others souls or conquering them, for that matter. This close to the fire, his pale eyes seemed nearly red for a moment, lit from within.
“That was an interesting lesson,” he said wryly and continued to search me on many levels. This close, his physical presence was fair overwhelming as he towered above me. I fought an instinct to try and retreat or cross my arms before me, took a deep breath instead and submitted to his examination.
Finally he straightened and put his head back, regarding me under half dropped lids still, a tiny twist around his lips that may or may not have been the indication of a smile.
“I am Lucian Tremain,” he said.
“I am Isca,” I said reflexively and found my voice to be not as steady as I would have liked.
As in acknowledgement of that fact, he gave the briefest of nods; then he returned to his previous position in the chair.
I sighed and tried to get more comfortable on the stone floor, feeling now tired and hungry and the strain of the darkness and the road and the rain.
My eyes fell on Dareon, who sat straight upright, staring into space, pretending very hard not to be there at all.
Lucian Tremain also looked at Dareon, and there was a feeling of dismissal in the air.
Dareon rose and without so much as giving me a single glance, left the room.
I noticed that his cloak was still black with wet and that the plates of food on the small table were entirely untouched.
“Are you to be my teacher?” I asked.
Lucian Tremain reached out and picked up a glass goblet with what looked like diamond red wine. He swirled the wine and looked at it with interest.
“That’s what they want,” he said with neutrality but I noted the resistance.
“Who are they?”
He took a slow drink from the goblet and rolled the stem between his fingers. He had very big hands.
“The High Council. Who else?”
“Are you Serein?” It just slipped out and I bit my lip. But it was just so wonderful to have someone actually listen to you, and answer your questions, I could not resist the temptation.
He sat up and put the glass down on the table harder than was necessary. Then he turned his scary eyes on me and there was a sharpness to his voice that took me by surprise.
“No more questions. Eat, drink, and find yourself a room – there are many.”
He got up and walked towards the door with long strides (very light on his feet for one so big) and then stopped. He turned around and looked back at me sitting by the fireplace. I don’t know what he saw, but I thought I saw shadows passing across his face which was pale in the dark. Abruptly, he spun on his heels and left.
The door fell closed behind him and I let out a sigh of relief.
For a long time I sat with the warmth of the fire on my back and looked at the closed blackwood door with the copper furnishings, half expecting he would return, half dreading it, half hoping I would be able to get a chance to look at him again, unusual and frightening though he was.
I had never met a one like that, nor ever seen a one l like that. I scanned my memories of all the men in the village, all the men I had seen on our few ventures to the market town, and even once, when I had seen the soldiers riding by, so contained and huge on their fantastic horses with their regiment’s colours bright – I had never met a one such as this Lucian Tremain.
So this strange old man was to be my master?
The thought made me feel uneasy, and I wrapped my arms about my shoulders briefly, feeling the smoothness of the undergarment and my living skin beneath. How could he teach me of Serein if he himself was not? For in spite of the fact that he never answered my question, he was definitely of the physical, of the here-world and not of that strange white silence of the Serein.
I wondered if he would beat me if I was too slow, or deemed to be lacking in endeavour of whatever tasks would be to come, and hoped that he would not. There were big men amongst the village folk, yet they lumbered heavily and ponderously, and this one, bigger than them all, moved with a coiled lightness that denoted strength controlled, honed and focussed.
I would not wish myself to be at the receiving end of a whip held by his hand.
I shook the thought from my head and frowned. There was no merit in such thoughts. Whatever was going to happen, here I was now. I had brought it on myself, as I brought on everything that befell me, truly enough. I resolved to do my best to please him and to learn what could be learned from him; for sincerely, the mornings rescue of the traveller’s child had made me more than hungry for more knowledge of that strange world, and its inherent powers.
Hungry. Now there was a thought!
I was delighted to be alone with all that food and drink sitting abandoned by all and so gathered up as much as my shift would hold and brought it with me to the fireplace. I drank the thick red wine and ate every piece of fruit, cheese, bread and meat that had been on the serving dishes. The food was wondrously rich and delightful to me after all that starvation in the monastery and those awful dried up scraps the Serein would take instead of food.
I stretched before the fire on the warm hearth stones.
My hair was dry and my belly was full. I would have gone to sleep gladly there and then but Lucian Tremain had told me to find a room and I had no desire to start off my apprenticeship with this man by being disobedient. I rose and wrung and placed the cloak to dry by the fire place, then picked up my dear singing stone which was all wonderfully charged up with the warmth of the fire and ran as quickly and as lightly as I could, through the hallway and up the stairs, through the cold of the house and before the fire’s warmth in me was all used up.
It was very dark and I could hardly see a thing with no illumination beyond what little night light came in from the dusty windows on the stairwell landing. On the second level, where it was darker still, was a corridor with many doors. I opened one at random and it was most definitely an empty bedroom, vaguely reminiscent of the Serein ones in layout yet more familiar with a wooden bed with linen blankets and a bedside table and wardrobe too.
There was the Serein type wash room though and for once I was most glad of it.
Only a few moments later, I was curled up in a tight ball under the clean but musty sheets and I slept and dreamed of nothing that I could remember the next day.